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Seattle blames union for school closings

By Vicky Jambor, Seattle Education Association | March 4, 2005 | Page 15

SEATTLE--After a narrowly approved contract in August gutted health care for part-time workers and gave teachers a paltry 9 percent salary increase over the next five years, the Seattle School District is stooping to a new low--by proposing to close 20 schools.

Seattle Public Schools projects a $20 million budget shortfall over the next two years just to maintain programs and cover teachers' salaries. The school board hasn't made any decisions yet, but it plans to vote on closure criteria March 16 and will make a final decision by July 13.

Closing a school, in theory, saves a district money by eliminating salaries of administrators and some non-teaching staff and reducing building security, food service and maintenance costs. Under these assumptions, the district would save between $4 million and $5.5 million a year, savings which don't even come close to the projected $20 million shortfall.

Districts nationwide are using similar methods--in Minneapolis, 15 or more schools will be closed over the next two years; in Detroit, 34 schools will be closed by the end of the year; and in Cincinnati, the district is thinking of closing at least 14 schools this year, just to name a few examples.

But school district bureaucrats and union officials nationwide aren't telling the whole story--that school closures really mean staff layoffs and increases in class sizes.

Union officials in Seattle say that these school closures are "justified" in order to pay for raises in teacher salaries. Has the union forgotten about Initiative 732 that voters passed overwhelmingly in 2000 to give K-12 school employees cost-of-living adjustments? For two years, we did get that money. But in 2003, the Legislature suspended I-732, citing a "lack of funds."

Washington state teachers rank 19th in salary nationwide--and make more than $10,000 less than the average West Coast teacher.

In 2000, voters also overwhelmingly approved another measure--Initiative 728--to reduce class sizes.

The public supports funding teachers' salaries and reducing class sizes. Unions should not be partnering with district officials to cut jobs and balance a budget shortfall on workers' and students' backs. Instead, the labor movement should point out that Washington state has granted more than 500 tax breaks or exemptions worth $64.7 billion to various corporations in its two-year budget.

At the current rate, tax giveaways here could surpass $100 billion by the end of the decade, while the state government predicts a $3 billion deficit. Instead of using money for health care, education and jobs, the state government is giving tax breaks to corporations that make billions of dollars. Union leaders need to take a stand against these cuts.

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